(2009) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 11/26/09 at CineArts @ Empire Theater, SF, CA
How unusual is it that two of the best new films that have come out in 2009 are stop-motion animated?
Fantastic Mr. Fox is the new film from Wes Anderson, writer/director of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), among others. It’s his first foray into a fully animated feature film, which is interesting in and of itself. Though, it’s an utterly different type of film, tonally and thematically, from Henry Selick’s wonderful Coraline(2009), they employ the same medium, stop-motion animation, a time-intensive physical craft. Selick had done the stop-motion work on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and apparently was working with this project before it moved studios.
Anderson collaborated on the script with Noah Baumbach, with whom he had previously shared co-writing credit on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (my favorite of Anderson’s films). And it seems to have paid off again. The film is funny, sweet, clever, and fun. We went on Thanksgiving, after dinner, three generations represented in our group, and I think it’s fair to say that a good time was had by all. That’s what marketing people want to hear, “a film for the whole family”. But how often does it really work out that way?
Anderson adapts Roald Dahl’s children’s book with a lot of additional wit a verve. And the voice acting is great too, with George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, and the always fantastic Bill Murray. Anderson creates another convoluted family unit, centered around a charismatic patriarch and the odds and ends of familial weirdness, such as when a cousin, Kristofferson, who is great at everything and deeply mellow, comes in and makes as yet non-fantastic Ash, the son of Mr. Fox, feel like a failure. Anderson’s familial landscape is familiar, but in this case, the story is more about the adventure and the moodiness of the family more just a tone.
I’ve also noted that in both The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and then again in The Darjeeling Limited, the characters are spurred into greatness by action, an event that requires them to take a heroic stance, fighting off pirates and rescuing crew or attempting to save children from drowning. Action ultimately is some catharsis, taking the characters out of their middling issues and elevating them to heroes of varying sorts.
Mr. Fox, who is slicker than grease, having given up his chicken-stealing ways and settled down when his son was born, is unhappy in his new found mediocrity. He wonders aloud if anyone even reads his newspaper column, his “regular” job, and he yearns for more, a life in a big tree high-rise. His “one last big score” thievery, stealing from the three loathsome local farmers, sets his whole community into chaos and danger when they come to track him down. And even when he is physically emasculated, losing his tail, he rises to heroism in setting things to rights, saving his nephew, and saving the community.
Anderson’s camera at times follows characters as they move from room to room, like the cut-away image from a children’s book, showing what is happening in every room in a house. It’s visually playful, viewing omnisciently the inner workings of the home or the extended family unit. Of course, with the stop-motion animated figures, this probably loaned itself a little more easily than perhaps having to construct a full-size set to do the same thing as he did in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. This visual theme infers the sense of complexity and interconnectedness of the characters’ social unit and functions, part of the ornateness of Anderson’s worlds.
What does all this mean? I don’t know exactly. I think that Anderson’s films tend to have a cheerful melancholy, stirred into the cathartic motions by something that necessitates action and change. They tend to be tonally similar, which suits me fine since I like them. They are funny and whimsical. Interestingly, I read that they shot the film at 12 frames per second instead of the normal 24 frames per second to highlight the twitchiness of the imperfections of the hair movement shifting between frames, drawing attention to the technique, highlighting the medium itself.
Anderson’s characters seek to be “fantastic”, and as Mrs. Fox tells her son, he certainly is, a charmer, leader, clever, unsinkable fellow, a classic Anderson hero. Fantastic indeed.